The Kingdom of Heaven transcends human understandings by Brad Eubanks
This sermon was preached at LCM|Canterbury on July 26, 2020. You can also find the video of the sermon at the bottom of this post.
Today we have a wonderful gospel lesson. I love these “the Kingdom of Heaven is like” sayings. I mean really, how fantastic is this.
Here is Jesus, telling all of these people that the Kingdom of Heaven is like these little, seemingly insignificant things that are worth more than the world to those who have them or to those who find them. See, the people of this age are thinking that the Kingdom of Heaven is going to be something big and grand and magnificent and, well, kingdomlike, and yet here’s Jesus saying “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, the smallest of all the seeds, which grows to become the greatest of...shrubs.”
Or, that the Kingdom of Heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, on finding one pearl of great value goes and sells all that he has for that one pearl. For those of you not in the business college, let me share a tidbit of mercantile knowledge with you: A merchant wouldn’t be expected to do that, a merchant is going to buy what they can resell, not just sell everything they have for one pearl…. That’s how they cease being a merchant quite quickly.
And so on. I love these parables. And yet, my favorite part of this entire lesson is at the end in verse 51, “‘Have you understood all these things?’ Jesus asked. They said to him, ‘Yes.’”
That right there is my favorite part of this entire exchange, and honestly perhaps my favorite part of the entire Gospel of Matthew. When I hear that, do you know what I hear?? I hear a college class informing their professor that yes, they totally get everything that is being told to them after a really deep and thick lecture right before class is supposed to end...when there is no way that they possibly could. They might also be giving side-glances to anyone who might say otherwise and make class go on longer.
I mean, How could the disciples understand everything? Here is Jesus telling them what the Kingdom of Heaven is like, using four parables no less, and none of it sounds like what the common view of what such a place would be like. How could they have full understanding immediately?
So, I went and scoured various commentaries on this specific verse, and a bunch of them really think us, the reader, should take this “yes” at face value. I mean, Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible even goes as far as to say “they say unto him, yea, Lord. This answer, which was truly and faithfully made, is a proof of their close and strict attention to the words of Christ; the quickness of their understandings, at that time, being in a very special manner opened and illuminated by Christ; and which he knew, when he put the question to them; but was willing to have it owned and expressed by themselves, that he might have the opportunity of saying what follows.”
But see, I just don’t buy it. When I was writing this sermon I tried my hardest to find something else, anything else, that spoke out to me to preach about, and it’s not like there isn’t an ample amount of amazing scripture to preach on this week….Roman’s alone is gold, pure gold. (I’ll probably preach on that in three years...hopefully not on Zoom!) And yet, as I read the lessons over and over again Matthew 13:51 kept sticking out to me more and more and more. So I kept reading commentaries, websites, blogs, and books. And well, it does seem to mean a pretty straightforward yes from what people who know Greek have found in the Greek, and yet, I still wasn’t satisfied. See, one can either understand the Gospels as stand alone writings, or interpret them through each other. And I’m not going to lie, most of the time I end up leaning towards viewing them as stand alone writings, except this one I can’t shake the fact that in the Gospel of Mark, which is seen by a good majority of scholarship as the original gospel writing, we have this following the parable of the mustard seed: “He spoke to them only in parables, then explained everything to his disciples when he was alone with them.” And, honestly, in Mark, the disciples are not seen nearly as intelligent as they are in Matthew. But I still can’t shake that in Mark it’s a given that Jesus has to explain this further, but in Matthew we are supposed to just take this “yes we understand you” from the disciples at face value? I mean, I’m not saying the Mathean writing should be interpreted through the eyes of the Markan authors...and yet, here, well….what?
And guess what, I’m not alone in this! Holly Hearon, a commentator from WorkingPreacher.org even wrote, “Matthew 13 concludes with Jesus asking the disciples if they have understood the parables that they have heard. The disciples respond yes. Perhaps we are intended to take their answer at face value. I confess to being suspicious, having learned that hard way that understanding often emerges over time and in new ways, proving my first level of understanding to have been short-sighted.”
Okay, so its not just me! But how do we reconcile this? How do we have these two thoughts together as one? How do we have that this is a true “yes”, as the Greek tells us, and that maybe they fully don’t grasp this understanding of the Kingdom of Heaven...all at once?
Well, I turned to another commentary, and as I read it I think a lightbulb went off. In Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers, not a source known for bucking against the status quo that often, we have, “The verb is the same as that used in the parable of the Sower. An intellectual apprehension of the truth, which is also spiritual, is the condition of the growth in wisdom which enables the disciple to become in due course a teacher. There was doubtless in the answer of the disciples a grateful consciousness of a rapid increase in knowledge and insight. There was also a certain child-like naïveté in the readiness with which they declared their conviction that they had mastered all the mysteries of the kingdom which had been veiled beneath the symbolism of these earthly similitudes.”
So, where am I going with all of this? Well, I think this helps us understand that the disciples did not lie, and yet they could not have stood up and taught all of this all at once right after hearing it. Perhaps they were saying that they understood what he was saying in a sense that they knew it was different and wonderful and amazing and topsy-turvy, and all of the things that it so is, and perhaps most importantly, they wanted to be a part of it. That they weren’t experts, but they didn’t want to be left out. Last week we heard from Allie about how amazing it is that the Divine asks us to be co-creators in the world. I think the disciples wanted to be that. And all of this while not being an expert, while only having a basic simplistic understanding of what the Kingdom of Heaven is like. I wonder if this is also because one only needs that little bitty taste of the Kingdom of Heaven to know within their hearts of hearts that this is exactly what they desire, and anything else would pale in comparison to that taste.
Maybe this is also permission for us not to be experts too. Right now our world is in a crazy place. Holly Hearon also wrote, “The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us how something so small that it is invisible to the eye can grow rapidly and exponentially into a destructive force that consumes all our attention and resources, as individuals, communities, nations, and as a world.
[This passage] offers a counter-image to this destructive force. The parables describe how the kin(g)dom of heaven emerges from something almost invisible to the eye and grows exponentially, offering us sustenance, a treasure worthy of all our attention and resources.” And, dare I say also a treasure we are invited to share in because we never have to be at that point of feeling like our amount of knowledge is worthy of such a role. Even in this world which is very much on fire all around us, we are able to take hold in the hope which is the Gospel truth that the Kingdom of Heaven is just that amazing.
Remember how I said at the beginning of this sermon that Romans was gold? Well, it is. And, I think it is exactly what we need to hear right now. I think that the lectionary creators did an excellent job pairing this Epistle and Gospel reading. In Romans we hear “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”
I don’t know about you, but I find myself currently having sighs too deep for words, and I think this also speaks to that understanding that the gospel lesson spoke of as well. I think that what Paul is telling us is that God wants us to know what the Kingdom of Heaven is like in a way where we are continually learning it again and again and again. And that God knows that our understanding of this is at a level that makes us say yes this is what we want, but is not at the level of understanding that one might think of when thinking of intellectual knowledge. At the end of writing all of this, I have to say, I think the disciples did fully understand the Kingdom of Heaven, but in ways that transcend human understandings. And I think we are invited to understand what the Kingdom of Heaven is like too. And, I think we are called to remember that we never have to be worthy of claiming that understanding to be able to claim it. Remember that last line from the Romans lesson, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Amen.
Since 2013, Brad Eubanks has served as a chaplain on the campus of Northern Arizona University. To learn more and get in contact with him, visit the Leadership page of this website.